She’s known on McCooey Field as a goal-scoring machine and in the classroom as an outstanding student who brings a thought-provoking perspective to the socio-economic implications inside of the sports industry she loves.
But to the surprise of many, this sport enthusiast—who has racked more goals than anyone in the history of William Smith field hockey—has spent the core of her studies at HWS examining the darker side of sports that she says is too often neglected.
“We need to be critical of the things we love in order to make them better, said Sophie Dennis, whose passion for athletics led her to develop an individual major of sports in society. “My love for the game increased throughout high school and college and inspired me to investigate issues more closely. The sports industry has a profound negative affect that can be invisible. On the surface we see the fun and the benefits of fitness but we need to look down deeper in a critical way. We need to improve the less positive elements in sports.
For the past four years, under the direction of her adviser Jo Beth Mertens, associate professor of economics, Dennis has studied the contradictory roles that sports play in the United States and examined many of the undesirable consequences of an industry that tops $213 billion in revenues annually. Her research is the impetus behind the fifth HWS Day, “Only a Game? The Role of Sport in Society, dedicated to taking a tough look at the U.S. sports industry. From April 9 to 13, six experts will come to campus to discuss sports in relation to economic disparity, educational imbalance, and the opportunity barriers for participation due to disabilities, sexual orientation or gender.
“To the credit of Sophie’s hard work and enthusiasm, a series of critical discussions will take place during HWS Day, said Mertens. “Sophie approaches and conquers academics the same way she has conquered field hockey. She welcomes challenges and views everything as an opportunity to learn more. Her intellectual versatility and ability cross disciplines in biology, economics, sociology, psychology and have come to bear on organizing this forum.
Dennis credits sports with providing her with self-esteem and a strong work ethic but is disappointed that what has given her so much provides so little to others. “It is ironic that sports began as an outlet for the working class, yet that very group is now being pushed out by high ticket prices, she explained. “Many view sport as a venue that is free from issues of class and power. They see sport as an avenue that is open to anyone to watch or participate but that is more myth than reality.
Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act have helped but professional sports are still dominated by males and in particular heterosexual males, and disparity is still evident in equal access for individuals with disabilities. In college sports, a $4 billion business annually, there is often unequal distribution of funds on campuses with the majority of funds going toward building and maintaining athletic facilities, and providing preferential admission to athletes who have special tutors and often take less difficult courses. Youth sports that were once thought to help build character can find coaches hitting players and parents yelling at opponents. She calls the “winning at any cost attitude the very darkest side to sports where athletes use performance enhancing drugs, cheating is accepted, and studies are finding college athletes more likely than the general college population to commit sexual assault.
So what does Dennis hope this exposé will accomplish? “I want to use HWS Day as a vehicle to make change happen, she said. “I want people to hear what these speakers have to say. I hope this will raise awareness around our community and help to bring about social change and action. That is my main goal.
“We need to be concerned about these topics and devise strategies to remove the negative consequences of sport, in order to improve it.
Heron field hockey Head Coach Sally Scatton couldn’t be more proud of Dennis and is confident in HWS Day’s success. “HWS Day will cap off four years of an exemplary academic and athletic career. The enormity and diversity of the week’s lineup does not surprise me. Sophie is never satisfied with the status quo, she challenges herself every day to reach her goals.
True to form, this three-time field hockey All-American plans to continue her outreach beyond this forum in two ways: by attending graduate school as a recipient of the prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and becoming a college coach and athletic director. At HWS, she intends to pass her torch to Kaitlyn Hamilton, a first-year field hockey player who not only wants to compete but pursue the same major.
“In the end, I want to coach, Dennis said. “Coaches have had a big impact on my life. Knowing what I’ve done and learned, I want to be able to influence and pass on what I have learned to other athletes. I had a great experience and I want to be able to give that to others.